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Live performance is changing, but not dying

Live theater dates back thousands of years, all the way to the ancient Greeks. Going to the theater is a form of entertainment that transcends time. In Shakespeare’s London, people piled into the Globe Theatre to see his plays. Today, large theater organizations like Broadway and West End bring theatrical hits to the stage.

However, today’s society is also overwhelmed with many new forms of entertainment such as music, television shows and movies. So where does live theater fit into this world?

Successful shows like Saturday Night Live SNL try to bridge the gap between live acting and scripted dramas. SNL is filmed “live” in front of a studio audience. It gives that feeling of seeing actors perform on stage, but in viewers’ homes. Other television shows are prerecorded in front of a large audience as well. The humor of “The Big Bang Theory” revolves around the laugh track, giving viewers the feeling that they are watching the show with other people and making the jokes even funnier.

These television shows can’t replace the feeling of a live performance: The excitement of getting dressed up, going out to dinner with family and friends, sitting through the show and watching actors up close are all necessary parts of the experience.

Unfortunately, non-profit and small theaters are falling behind. Shows that make it to Broadway and West End are successful because they’re the leaders in the theater world. But those small, hidden gems are financially collapsing. Non-profit theaters aim to provide performances to their communities through donations, but their donors are gradually disappearing.

To renew interest in the theater, some productions try to replicate the successes of certain shows or movies from Hollywood. When “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” opened in 2011, it received many negative reviews despite being a Broadway show. Broadway took an action-packed hit movie and turned it into an on-stage musical. However, the action created by special effects in a movie cannot be replicated on stage. The caliber of stunts on stage was dangerous for the actors trying to perform these maneuvers and resulted in many accidents. One actor fell 300 feet during an aerial stunt. “Spiderman” drew from pop culture, but that didn’t guarantee its success on stage.

Recreating popular movies and television shows doesn’t always work within the limitations of the stage and actors. So what can theater companies do to maintain interest in the arts?

Immersive theater recently gained a lot of interest in the theater community, beginning with the Punchdrunk theatre company in London. Immersive theater turns the audience into part of the cast. During the show, audience members are required to wear masks the entire time and are not permitted to speak.

The audience literally steps into the world of the show. They have free-reign to wander around the sets and chase the actors, trying to figure out the plot and what’s happening in the show. They can also find vacant rooms and dig through the drawers of desks, searching for any information they can find. Immersive theaters add an interactive element to live performance.

Certain actors move between playing roles in movies and acting on stage. For example, well-known actors Rupert Grint of “Harry Potter” and Jude Law of “Sherlock Holmes” took to the stage in large productions in London. Idina Menzel regularly switches between appearances on the big screen and the stage. The fluidity of these popular actors renews interest in theater as movie-lovers flock to the theater to see their favorite actors on stage.

At St. Olaf, the theater performances on campus are well loved. This fall “In The Heights” was a giant success. Tickets for “In Black” sold out in minutes, the line weaving through Buntrock Crossroads.

So is theater a dying art form? No. But it’s changing, evolving to accommodate the interests and desires of today’s audience.

Katie Haggstrom ’14 is from Omaha, Neb. She majors in English.

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